Internet: Why the Web's `Spam King' has had his chips

Internet users have been up in arms for months about Sanford Wallace as his company Cyberpromo "spammed" the net with up to 20 million e-mails each day. So why is he not online anymore? And what is spamming? Charles Arthur on the battle over the Net's fut

Sanford Wallace is a hunted man. He is only being hunted through the Internet, which might seem like some respite. But as that is the medium through which he makes his money, he is in a difficult position. Every time he tries to do his work, he gets shut down.

Last Friday, one of the biggest groups running the "backbone" of the Internet, Apex Global Internet Services (Agis), cut off Mr Wallace's Internet connection, citing "outstanding security issues". It was the culmination of months of pressure from other Internet users, who complained that by giving Mr Wallace's company Cyberpromo an Internet connection, Agis was complicit in "spamming" - also known as "junk e-mailing". (The term "spam" comes from the Monty Python restaurant sketch in which spam features in everything on a menu; to Net users, it became synonymous with the unavoidable and excessive.)

Mr Wallace, an American would-be entrepreneur in his mid-20s, is the self-anointed, self-appointed "Spam King" of the Internet: a man who has so annoyed many companies which offer connection to the Internet that they have taken his company Cyberpromo to court. He claims he has the future of commerce. Sending millions of e-mails costs almost nothing. (The receiver has to pay for the telephone connection charges.) Opponents, including those who run Internet systems, and thousands of users, think his methods could bring the Net to its knees.

Internet access providers AOL and CompuServe both took the legal route because Cyberpromo was sending their members about 2 million e-mails every day, advertising mostly useless and sometimes illegal services (including pyramid schemes). On an average day, Cyberpromo would send out 15 to 20 million e-mails. Some systems collapsed under that weight of work - hence AOL's and Compuserve's lawsuits, which they won.

Many other people who received Cyberpromo e-mails took the matter into their own hands. Their complaints included e-mail firestorms known as "denial of service" attacks, which could also make a system impossible to use. Agis suffered from those after Mr Wallace joined them last October, having been kicked off the Net by Sprint Corporation.

Despite last week's setbacks, Mr Wallace has not given up. In the past few days he has reactivated machines which in the past few months he had hired with other service providers. He has used those at the weekend to spam again - and almost instantly they have been shut down as the spam is tracked back to its source.

Part of the resentment is because Cyberpromo does not target willing or even interested addressees, but gathers names by using "extractor" software to grab e-mail addresses from the Internet's thousands of groups and millions of Web pages.

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